Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Globe editorial nails the Conservatives on the isotope shortage

"Lacking answers, and urgency." Bloody right, the Conservatives have failed Canada on the isotope issue, big time:
More than three months into an unscheduled shutdown of the Chalk River NRU reactor, the federal government still appears to have little insight into, and fewer solutions to, the isotope crisis plaguing not only Canada but the rest of the world.

As health-care providers scramble to make up for the shortage, the protracted crisis inspires little confidence in the government's grasp of this complex issue. Ottawa's apparent desire to wash its hands of isotopes is no excuse for its lack of a strategy in dealing with the urgent situation at hand.

Chalk River's aging reactor was taken offline in late May when a heavy-water leak was discovered. Atomic Energy of Canada, Ltd., the Crown corporation operating the reactor, still does not know when it will be back up and running; it is not likely to happen before the end of this year.

Global supplies of the materials vital for diagnostic X-rays are spread thin, putting thousands of patients' treatment and diagnosis in jeopardy. In Canada, prices for imported isotopes are skyrocketing and health-care providers are taking a budgetary hit to buy the scarce radioactive material. Despite calls for more funding to help cover the shortfall, Ottawa has insisted provinces will get no isotope-specific funds.

Manitoba became the latest to offer up a potential solution in the form of an alternative isotope supply at the University of Winnipeg's particle accelerator. Saskatchewan has offered to host a research and isotope reactor.

In the meantime, doctors and industry players alike continue to call on the government to get the two Maple reactors, which were supposed to replace the 52-year-old Chalk River reactor, back online after the government announced in May 2008 the project was not going forward. Isotope supplier MDS Nordion has taken AECL to court over the issue.

If this were the first time Canada had dropped the ball on its isotope production, the present outage might be excusable. But Ottawa got an embarrassing warning two years ago, when the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission pulled the plug on Chalk River after then-president Linda Keen found it was missing necessary upgrades.

That should have been Ottawa's cue to prevent another shutdown, especially given the degree to which precarious global isotope supplies rely on the Chalk River reactor, which normally produces a third of the world's supply. The present crisis is far worse, and Ottawa's apparent inability to offer adequate solutions – or even support to help hospitals cope – leaves much to be desired
(emphasis added)
Well said, particularly those last two paragraphs which strike at the heart of the Conservative government's responsibilities here.

The government has let Canadians down through poor leadership, a lack of vision and the failure to plan for the foreseeable consequences of a second shutdown. There's a major health care failing here. There are many reasons to argue on any given day as to why the Conservatives should not be governing. This one is right up there at the top of the list.

For more on this topic, see: Blog Post Index: Medical Isotope crisis & Chalk River shutdown.